Morocco: What Happens in a Hammam? 6


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By Jen

Neil stared at me for quite a while yesterday morning. Not in itself worrying but for the fact that he was driving. I checked for the usual culprits of jam or crumbs on face, and looked back. “You look a few years younger” he said. Ok, so the hammam the day before might go down as the best 4 euros I’ve spent in a long time.

A hammam is a traditional public bath which involves a lot of scrubbing but with the promise of baby soft skin afterwards.

I wasn’t sure about how to go about organising a trip to a local hamman. They are not really advertised. They were nowhere to be seen in Tafraoute, south of Agadir, where we had been for about a week. Hammam baths are deeply embedded within the Berber culture and a weekly ritual for local women. You do get hammams for men but they are very separate.

I found a man who looked like he might know a thing or two standing in the centre of town. As luck would have it, not only was he going to tell me where a local hammam was, he was going to take me there. Right now.

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I was led along narrowing alleys until we reached a door under an arch. If you looked closely enough there was a tiny painted tile which said “Bain” mounted next to it. And a lady dressed from head to toe in black in the doorway. This is the traditional costume in this southern part of Morocco. They exchanged pleasantries in Berber, had a brief conversation, and he turned to me and said, in French, “Ok, come back here in 15 minutes with a towel and some shampoo. The rest you’ll get inside”.

“Pants, do I need pants? Or a bikini?” was all that was going round in my head. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I didn’t like to ask.

“Take your clothes off, except pants, bring a towel, and come with me” was what I scrambled to understand in gestures when I got back to the door marked “Bain” fifteen minutes later. I am working hard on my Berber but can only remember “thank you” and “cheers” so far, and no one spoke English or French. I KNEW I should have taken spare pants.

Several other local women were smiling at me in a “it’s your first time” sort of a way, removing their black robes, wrapping up in towels, and filling buckets with various bottles of lotions and potions and cloths.

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The next room along was hot, a bit steamy, and covered from floor to domed ceiling with patterned tiles. There was a stick mounted between two walls just before the entrance, and I was told to hang my towel there. A half dozen or so women, and a little toot about 1 1/2 sitting in and peeking out from the top of a bucket, were already in the room. There were buckets all around and taps filling them with hot water. Most of the women were sat on the floor, chatting and engrossed in their cleansing ritual.

After I’d plopped myself on the floor, as inconspicuously as possible, my “scrubbing lady”, now also down to her pants, got to work. A hammam is not somewhere you leave with your modesty intact.

You’re first rubbed all over with black soap, about the consistency of butter. It’s made with olive and the magical argan oil (see previous post). The soap/oil was left on for a bit, and I relaxed and looked around at the happy, laughing women who I had hitherto only seen quietly slipping past in their black robes. Then scrubbing lady brought out a black cloth glove with nothing short of industrial strength sandpaper covering one side. For a middle aged woman she was incredibly, and I mean incredibly, strong. Not an inch was spared.

There was glee in her eyes at the amount of skin she had managed to remove from a 44-year-old hammam virgin. My skin was burning and I was beginning to quite enjoy the pain. Every now and again she laid my hand on the bit of thigh or stomach she had just attacked, as evidence of how much skin I had now parted with.

I was rinsed down with bowls of hot water from the buckets, and the process would start again. My hair was shampooed and I was given a final scrub and rinse. The whole process took about an hour and a half.

I felt great, inside and out. And it was a real privilege to be able to see another side to these women, laughing and joking with each other across the room. To enjoy an authentic hammam is something I’d thoroughly recommend.

I reckon that Berber women, under their robes, and post Hammam scrub, must have the softest, smoothest skin in the world. Nice one, ladies.

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